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MARCH 27, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 12

V I E W P O I N T
The New Old Thing
Indian-Americans are reaching out to their roots to create a unique culture

By NISID HAJARI

The great question of the immigrant experience in America is figuring out when one has arrived. Has a community "made it" after producing its first Member of Congress? Its first sitcom star? Its first big-bucks ceo? South Asians in the U.S. seem to have stumbled upon a simpler litmus test: the Net dominates America, and Indians dominate the Net. ("The definitive smell of a Silicon Valley start-up was of curry," may be the most quoted line from Michael Lewis' book about the Valley, The New New Thing.) Therefore, Indians must now rule the U.S. The definitive smell of the American melting pot must be of curry, no?
Not exactly. Starry-eyed profiles of high-tech billionaires like venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia grant the South Asian community a profile that far exceeds its numbers--just over a million, in a U.S. population of more than 270 million. The ranks of software engineers and others emigrating to America are hardly vast enough to color the U.S. brown.

What they have begun to Indianize, however, is the Indian-American community. Those of us whose mothers and fathers came to the States in the 1960s are saddled with nearly every cultural hang-up common to second-generation immigrants. Given visa restrictions, our parents often filled the professional roles that now paint South Asians as a model minority: as doctors, lawyers, engineers. Many of these landed not in giant metropolises, but in smaller, mostly white suburbs. The town outside Seattle where I was raised boasted two other Desi, or Indian, families. Driving two hours to visit another Gujarati household for dinner was not unusual; neither was hiking over the border to Canada to buy spices. Growing up was a familiar exercise in assimilation: India was only a place to be visited--and then reluctantly--every few years. A question of identity was, "Why don't you wear a turban?"

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Bill Clinton is traveling to South Asia at a time when its diaspora is rising to the top of the American melting pot, making hit movies in Hollywood and Internet millions in Silicon Valley--and smashing stereotypes along the way
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Those Indian-Americans who grew up in larger cities, of course, enjoyed a different experience--one made easier in some ways by the makings of a real community. The boom in Indo-chic has now brought that experience to a world beyond the classic immigrant ghetto. This may sound like a small thing, but it's not. Indian-American teenagers can now watch Hindi movies on cable and in theaters, buy Hindi remix music from Bombay and London, dress in clothes that cross American streetwear with South Asian influences. Such changes offer no more and no less than validation--that grail sought by all immigrant communities, and something more often begged from the culture of the adopted country than imported from the one left behind.

That doesn't mean that us abcds (American-born Confused Desis) are necessarily becoming more Indian. No matter how many local newspapers run stories about Indian-American boys who prefer arranged marriages to village girls, such stunts will remain just that--colorful, easily digestible anecdotes that say far more about America's continuing fascination with Indian stereotypes than about the lives of Indian-Americans. Our connections to the subcontinent are drawn more ephemerally, via e-mail and satellite TV and the bulked-up cultural interchange that now describes the world at large. This is not, or not only, a question of slavishly following the politics of identity that has bloomed in the U.S. in recent years. Ideally, what we're seeing is not a generation finding its roots in the ancient soil of the subcontinent. Instead what may be growing is an ease with multiple roots--and a more nuanced understanding of modern Indianness, with all the variety and contradiction and friction that comes with a culture undergoing such radical changes.

All of this, of course, is precisely what's not being promoted in the current craze for all things Indian. Too often the evidence produced to attest to such a boom is of fleeting import: a bindi on Madonna's forehead, a cup of Starbuck's chai, a proliferation of Ayurvedic cures. None of these dislodges the cartoonish image of India that lingers in the minds of Americans; none proves that American culture has somehow been "Indianized." Perhaps that's too much to ask. The world's most ravenous culture machine has long scoured the globe for new influences to appropriate and refashion and send back out to international markets. It has done so before with India (remember Nehru jackets?). No doubt it will do so again.

But keep in mind: the same logic once convinced cultural ideologues in India that American pop culture could not be defied, that Coca-Colonization would be inevitable unless barriers were raised. Instead, in India, too, foreign influences have been absorbed and reprocessed, transformed into hybrid strains that are as local in their own way as the most turgid Bollywood thriller. South Asians in Britain have produced similar fusions, and Indian-Americans have begun to do so as well. Much of this, of course, remains consigned to the margins of downtown clubs and ethnic film festivals. But that's where the audience for a truly Indian-American culture will linger long after some other group has moved to center stage in America's fickle consciousness.


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